David B. Eller

Ohio and Pennsylvania religion professor, Church of the Brethren minister convicted for ‘unlawful contact with a minor’

In 2007, Dr. David Eller (b. 1945) pleaded guilty in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, to charges of unlawful contact with a minor (a first-degree felony) and criminal use of a computer (a third-degree felony). Eller was arrested in 2006 after trying to arrange a sexual encounter with someone he thought was a 12-year-old girl.

At the time of his arrest, Eller chaired the religious studies department at Elizabethtown (Pennsylvania) College, which is affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, and was director of the school’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietest Studies.

According to Lancaster Online, “In the month before his arrest, … Eller was using Internet chat rooms to make contact with four different undercover agents, all members of the Attorney General’s Child Predator Unit, who were pretending to be young girls as they monitored Internet chat rooms and Web sites.”

Describing himself as “an older married guy, Harrisburg area,” Eller said he was chatting from his office and apologized for “occasional interruptions.” The paper reported that, “He went on to ask the girl questions about the style and color bathing suit she wore, what her sexual experiences had been and discussed in specific detail various sex acts they could perform, according to the affidavit.”

Two days after the arrest, the Church of the Brethren announced Eller’s arrest and said the college had placed him on administrative leave. “Members of the Church of the Brethren will certainly want to keep Elizabethtown College and the Eller family at the center of our prayers in the coming weeks,” said the denominational board’s secretary.


1970s

In a first-person account written in 2013, a woman who grew up in the Church of the Brethren recounted meeting Eller when she was 17 and he was approximately ten years older and had recently graduated from Bethany Theological Seminary, a Brethren school. The woman wrote that after inviting her to his office, Eller “began to hug and kiss me. I was exceedingly confused by his advances since I knew he was married and I still trusted him as a church leader.”

A few years later, in the midst of a personal crisis, the woman, “yearning for friendship and guidance,” reached out to Eller. “I was longing to connect with someone who could mentor me from a Christian perspective through pressing decisions about what to do next with my life.” After taking her to his bedroom and moving close as if to comfort her, Eller reportedly initiated sex with the young woman. “I did not see him again after that. I tried to obliterate all memory of the event, but it kept coming back to haunt me, year after year, gripping me with shame that I had allowed him to entrap me.”

The woman said she later told people at her church, and they reportedly encouraged her to confess what happened as her own sin. “No one recognized it as anything other than consensual sex. No one talked about his sin of sexual aggression and abuse of power.”

Many years later, nearing age 50, with the help of years of therapy, I came to recognize Eller’s approaches to me as abusive and the negative impact those encounters had on my life. I was a particularly vulnerable teenager and young adult. Eller obtained my trust due to his association with church and with people I trusted. The difference in our ages and life experience added to the power imbalance between us. Recognizing his behavior toward me as betrayal and abuse allowed me to access buried rage at how he had taken advantage of me, to let go of the shame, and over time, to experience healing.

2006

After learning in 2006 about Eller’s arrest and then reading the official statement from the Church of the Brethren asking people to keep “Elizabethtown College and the Eller family at the center of our prayers,” the woman wondered, “And what of his victims? No prayers for them?”

I am left to wonder how many other vulnerable young people suffered Eller’s unwanted sexual advances over the years and why church leaders gave no apparent thought to praying for the victims whose lives and souls he had no doubt also devastated.


After initially putting Eller on administrative leave, Elizabethtown College issued a statement a week later saying it had fired him and restricted him from college property and equipment.

In February 2007, Eller pleaded guilty to the charges against him. Multiple accounts of the sentencing hearing several months later report that more than 50 people, “many from the Ellers’ congregation at the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, filled the seats in the courtroom Friday morning in support of [Eller].” The judge also reportedly received more than 70 letters of support on Eller’s behalf.

According to Lancaster Online, “Eller blamed his actions on a sexual addiction, stemming from a middle-age-male need for affirmation from women.” Eller reportedly told the judge that he didn’t think he would have had sex with the 12-year-old girl he expected to meet, but would probably have just talked to or “counseled her.”

Despite letters from and the presence of supporters, pleas for leniency and mercy from Eller and his wife, and Eller’s “claim that jail time wouldn’t help his rehabilitation,” the judge said the crime “cries out for incarceration” when he sentenced Eller to two-and-a-half to 10 years in state prison followed by five years of probation.

In 2010, The Etownian, the weekly student newspaper of Elizabethtown College, reported on Eller’s efforts to be released from on parole. The article quoted the college’s president as saying, “It’s very unfortunate that it ended up compromising not only his personal life, but his professional life as well. We were all sorry for his family and very distressed about his behavior.”

The paper also noted that Dr. Donald Kraybill, who took over leadership of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietest Studies after Eller’s arrest, was a close friend of Eller, visiting him in prison twice a year and corresponding by writing letters. “Kraybill emphasizes that Eller truly enjoys historical research and scholarship and hopes he will be able to pursue something related to his interests after his sentence is over.”

Information from the Pennsylvania State Police indicates that Eller first registered as a sex offender on August 31, 2011, a requirement that in Pennsylvania only begins upon release from prison. Since Eller no longer seems to appear on any sex offender registry after August 2020, he was likely only required to register for 10 years.

Church-related positions

  • Professor of religion at Bluffton College, 1976–1984
  • Director, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, 1997–2006
  • Professor of history and religious studies, director of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, 1997–2006
  • Ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren

First-person accounts

Documentation

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